Should Steve Smith Be Allowed To Play Championship Cricket Before The Ashes?

Steve Smith is in red hot form. Last week, the Australian stroked a masterful 200* against the West Indies – dismantling what looked to be a promising young Windies attack to reach the milestone off 311 balls. Smith’s monster knock laid the foundation for a commanding Aussie win.

Smith and co are now playing South Africa in a three match Test series. Australia will be looking to end their abysmal run of three home series defeats in a row to the Proteas. Astonishingly, they haven’t won a home series against them since 2006. After that, they jet off to India for yet another Test series before a possible World Test Championship final appearance. Then onto the big one, the Ashes in July. 

Needless to say, Australia are playing a lot of cricket before the Ashes: 12 Tests, to be exact. But for Steve Smith, this simply isn’t enough. The ‘best since Bradman’ is considering a debut stint in the county championship come May – three games of preparation prior to Ashes. Smith has never graced England’s four-day competition but did make a handful of T20 appearances for Worcestershire as a 21-year-old. 

Whether he opts to don the whites in county cricket remains to be seen. However, with the Ashes only a month or so after Smith’s scheduled appearance, it’s perhaps worth asking another question: should he be allowed to play?

The county championship is nothing new to Australian batters. Marnus Labuschagne has been an honorary Welshman at Glamorgan for three years now. Usman Khawaja and Travis Head have also honed their craft in the UK. Yet it’s Smith’s decision to play just three matches, right before the Ashes, that has drawn the most criticism. A common assertion online is that a stint so short would only serve to benefit Smith and the Australian team – allowing the left hander time to find form and acclimatise to English conditions, while taking the spot of a more committed, possibly home-grown batter. 

Smith’s record in the Ashes is already outstanding, averaging a mind-boggling 59.69 and scoring 11 centuries in his 32 matches against England. Aussie fans will remember his god-like 2019 series fondly. Should he be permitted his three county championship games, England will be faced with a terrifying prospect: a master batter, in form and at home in English conditions. 

Yet, is that not what we want? The Ashes is the pinnacle of Test cricket. The best of the best facing off in the toughest of circumstances. So why would the world’s best batter, in form and well prepared, be a bad thing? 

The obvious answer is that it makes Australia better, and England more likely to lose. While I concede that this would strengthen the Aussies, it would also enhance the quality of the Ashes and improve the standard of cricket played. Indeed, what’s the more fascinating contest: an in-form, acclimated Steve Smith facing up to James Anderson for possibly the last time, or an under-cooked Smith staring down England’s grizzled old timer?

There’s a plethora of other benefits to Smith playing county cricket on our shores, too. For one, Australia’s former Test captain would certainly improve the standard of the competition. Any young bowlers tasked with taking down the great Australian can surely only learn from a contest with the great man. 

The same can be said for our Test bowlers. Smith has made several technical changes since he last slayed the three lions. Most noticeably, he’s adapted his stance and trigger movement to open up the on-side. Should Smith come across, say, Ollie Robinson at Hove, the Sussex seamer would have a valuable practice run against the esteemed Aussie prior to the Test summer. He can do some valuable intelligence, test any plans, and expose any chinks in Smith’s new method.

An English sabbatical would also aid Smith’s possible teammates. As a young man at Worcestershire, he was still honing his craft. Twelve years on, Smith is the complete batter and can certainly give something back – offering his years of wisdom to younger teammates, eager to learn from a man with almost 30 Test hundreds at an average north of 60.

We should also consider the very distinct (although somewhat unlikely) possibility that Smith fails to do well in his three matches. Spring pitches in the UK are notoriously treacherous; unruly English weather makes county tracks a seamer’s dream in the early season. A pantheon of great players have struggled on the county scene, so who’s to say Smith won’t do the same? A few failures to perform at county level may even undermine his confidence and dent his ego right before the Ashes. 

Whether Smith plays county cricket come May remains to be seen. Most of the 18 counties have an overseas spot or two to fill so there’s no shortage of possible destinations. There are obviously downsides to Smith preparing on English shores – the extra preparation is unlikely to do his Ashes prospects any harm – yet, as attendances dwindle and fears for the survival of the county game escalate, county cricket would be better off accepting the Australian great. Indeed, the arrival of a generational cricketer in English domestic cricket should be celebrated. 

Love him or loathe him, Steve Smith is the world’s best batter. So let’s focus on the broader benefits rather than worrying about potential negatives.

Will Symonds

15 comments

  • If Steve Smith wishes to play in the County Championship and there’s a county willing to host him (believing it to be in their interests), then it would seem really petty to attempt to block that for Ashes-related reasons.

    England should attempt to beat Australia on the pitch, not by thwarting their preparations. If the England players feel that playing County Championship cricket would benefit Steve Smith then perhaps they could try fitting in more appearances for their (sometimes nominal) counties themselves.

    • Spot on. And really how would you stop him from playing while allowing other overseas players to do so? Strikes me as bit daft to suggest it. Don’t quote me on this but Surrey is the likely County if it happens.
      And you know watching the Aussie bowlers blast out SA yesterday, on yes a useful pitch, I think the England batsmen have more to worry about than Smith playing 3 CC matches.

  • Yes let him play. More opportunity to knobble him or get him to injure himself. There must be loads of bowlers eager to give him the hurry up. If he’s in good form beforehand it can only go one way. After all central contracts limit our own players from playing red ball before test matches in case of injuries and the like.

  • I’m all for it. Test matches should be the best against the best and there is no doubt that that often hasn’t been the case with sides arriving at the last minute, often because of other commitments, rather having the programme of County and representative matches as in days of yore.
    Having said that, I can’t see the Australians welcoming an English batsman to Sheffield Shield cricket for acclimatisation prior to an Ashes series !

  • Trevor Bayliss was amazed the countys gave the Aussies an opportunity to get into form and accustomed to English conditions ahead of the Ashes. His remark was that no English players would be advised to play in the Sheffield Shield.

  • My issue would be not that he’s Australian and it’s just before the Ashes–that partly shows England’s cricket’s obsession with the Ashes; I don’t remember any of this kind of hoo-haa when Virat Kohli signed up to play for Surrey just before an India series. It’s the length of contract.

    If he wants to come for the first seven rounds like a lot of other overseas players, absolutely fine. If he wants to dip in for a couple of matches at a time of his choosing, then I wouldn’t be so happy. I really struggle to see how turning over overseas players every two or three games helps counties much at all, except in the very short term.

  • I can say pretty confidently that if Joe Root wanted to come and play 3 Shield matches for Queensland, or any other state, before the First Test at the Gabba, that simply would not happen.

    I guess the question is whether English county sides are beholden to the ECB? Or can they decide on their own if Smith, or any foreign player, can show up and play a few games?

    That said, it’s not like Australia states have international players at all, so it’s not a great analogy. It would be a massive aberration to let the likes of Root come in for 3 games for a warmup.

    But I actually think it speaks well of the English that this is even being considered.

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